Marketing in Ag Tech: Best Practices and Tips for Reaching Your Audience

In this first episode of the Ground Breaking Podcast, Heather Tunstall interviews Kathleen Glass, VP of Marketing at AquaSpy, about the unique challenges of marketing in the ag tech space. Learn tips on how to reach your audience in a variety of ways – even if you don’t have an on-staff marketing professional.

Podcast Transcript:

Heather Tunstall: Thanks for joining us. Welcome to the Ground Breaking podcast from the Global Ag Tech Initiative. We are recording from the Women and Ag Tech meeting in Glendale, Arizona, and co-located with the Vision Conference. And I’m here with Kathleen Glass, VP of Marketing with Aqua Spy. Welcome.

Kathleen Glass: Thank you for having me, Heather.


Tunstall: And I’m Heather Tunstall, the co-chair for the Global Ag Tech Initiative. Today, we’re going to talk a little bit about marketing, clearly something that you know quite a bit about and how the ag industry can not only learn a little bit more, but talk about how we talk to and about each other, within the industry.

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Glass: What got me passionate about being part of Women in Tech Alliance, being part of the Global Ag Tech Alliance is that, you know, I hear and see a lot of challenges in Ag Tech adoption that really, when it comes back around to is challenges in selling and marketing the solutions that are new. And I’ve been in early stage sales and marketing for all of my career and, you know, came out of Silicon Valley originally. I’m in San Diego, which is a tech hub, and have been focused primarily on the early adopter. And what’s happening is that even though the ag industry is hundreds of years old, technology aside from, you know, the Henry Ford tractors and John Deere, I mean, that was 100 years ago. But specialty crops tech is relatively new. And so often what happens is that startups come in and they get dazzled by their great idea and they start talking about all their features. And we’re really in the middle of that right now with ag tech and adoption. And so growers are getting frustrated. The ag tech startups and early stage companies are getting frustrated.

So I think there’s a lot that we can bring from other industries to this. Now, one of the things that I learned as a marketer, which was really challenging for me early on, was that, you come out of hi-tech where a pilot is 90 days. But in ag, a pilot is 3 to 5 years ….a little different. And even I don’t think that the ag tech startups really understand that yet, and you have to really put the benefits forward for the grower; you have to talk about the why, and you have to really present a business case.

And not unlike a lot of other industries, maybe growers are a little bit more about “Show me, I have to touch it myself. I have to see my neighbors using it. I have to see others using it.” But that gives us some opportunity as marketers to look for collaborations to help us accelerate that a lot.

Tunstall: Yeah, that’s a great point. And talking about some of your past experience outside of agriculture, what are some things you learned in marketing that you’re able to adapt to some of the challenges we’re facing and ag right now, perception-wise, go-to-market wise – what kinds of lessons did you learn in your past experience that you’ve brought forth now?

Glass: You know, there’s there’s a lot to be brought forward. Interestingly enough, I started making this shift around 2005. Pretty much early in my telecom and AI and IoT career, I’ve been selling to IT folks and they have their own particular way of, you know, behaving like early adopters and signaling and testing and adopting. An early adopter as a tech person just wants to try it. They don’t care if anybody else is using it. They don’t care if it’s proven. They just are like, yeah, I’ll try it out. Except for about 2005, I got into driver safety and was selling into what we would call again more tech sensitive or tech late adopter industry. So we were selling into concrete, we were selling into trash waste management, we were selling into taxis and limos and folks that weren’t typically high tech industries.

And this is 2005. So there there were even laws, that were kind of against us. So there were privacy issues and spying and recording issues. And so, you know, that was where also we learned that you want to work with lobbyists, you want to work with researchers, you want to work with the insurance industry. So go and find other folks to collaborate with to help with that adoption and collect the data, approve the points.

And so, you know, really try to bring that part of it, that part of my experience marketing into those sort of late adopters like this oil and gas at one point, which was really late adopter. I mean, they use paper and pencil because things will explode if you bury a computer on an oil rig. Right. So, you know, I have work through these transitional types of things. So I have hope. I know it will happen, but it’s going to take longer. And we have certain things as marketers that we need to do. We partner with universities. I’ve spent a lot of time being part of groups like we were talking about, you know, it’s not.

And this is, I think, a different thing from Silicon Valley where the Silicon Valley, it’s very competitive and it’s like me against my competition. And here it’s more like cooppetition. You know, all of us need to come together. There isn’t enough adoption for us to be competing at this point, and there’s lots of open opportunity so we can do collaboration and competition, working with our competitors in similar types of technologies in in the industry. You know, a drone is like an IoT sensor, right? And you’ve got above-ground sensors and below-ground sensors. And so you really want to think about how can we also partner with the rest of the ecosystem to come up with a holistic solution for the growers? Because one of the things we hear a lot is I don’t want to hear your point solution. This isn’t, you know, if I’m working the channel, it’s not like a multiple choice menu. Please present me a total solution. So that comes back. Let’s partner for that.

Tunstall: I love that. And I think that’s a common theme that we’re hearing a lot more of right now. It’s that collaboration aspect because people are looking, like you said, I want to know if I implement something, it’s just going to go and do what I need it to do. And that takes pieces from different technologies, different companies, all of that. And I’m curious, when we’re talking specifically about marketing, a lot of the companies may not have a marketer on staff, right? What would be the key things they need to do to make sure that they’re getting their message out there?

Glass: Well, there’s there’s a couple of great resources that one can go to and they’re not just in Silicon Valley anymore. There are tech accelerators, and I’m so excited to see more tech accelerators focused on ag and ag tech. There’s a hub around Land O’Lakes. They’re very supportive. There’s like an accelerator hub around where they are.

And so you see that we’ve got some hubs around some of the University of California areas where they’re sort of doing a hub. So we talked I talked to somebody today and we were suggesting she got involved with with Light. And The Vine is a University of California initiative that’s helping raise these communications. And so the good thing is, is that you don’t have to hire somebody full time on staff. You can get somebody fractional. You can work with a good agency. I mean, I’ve talked to a number of different folks here at Women and AG Tech where they have PR agencies, communication agencies, web agencies. So you can work with somebody who has that domain expertise and you don’t have to have them on full time. You can go through one of these accelerators. You can get involved in your local extension courses, your community extensions, and like, you know, your university, University of Florida, you know, tops them a whole bunch of different resources that you can take advantage of that is beyond just having to hire somebody in-house.

Tunstall: Yeah, that’s a great point. And, you know, thinking through sort of how every industry has its evolution, right? And obviously, ag is going through a huge one right now. Marketing also has gone through quite an evolution; it used to be very transactional, very, you know, sign on the dotted line and you get your ad and there we are. Let’s talk a little bit about some of the newer ways that people are marketing and what makes sense now in terms of storytelling, in terms of making sure that you’re getting across a full picture with context.

Glass: Yeah, Well, and it’s interesting. I’ve actually even sort of gotten back a little bit more old school because I had tended to be quite digital, right? You know, the CIOs and those folks are, you know, you can find them on Zoom info and you can download the data and then market to them using your Salesforce CRM or your HubSpot CRM.

And so you have this whole digital marketing, but interestingly enough, I have had to really rethink and broaden or even bring back some of my marketing to be more hyper-regional and think more local about that. So that might mean we’ve been doing really well with crop based regional Facebook ads. And you know that was new for me but I went and found some expert, so that wasn’t me. I knew that I didn’t know anything about Facebook marketing. So I hired an agency that does this out of Atlanta and they’re phenomenal.

And so it’s test and evolve. We try one message and then we really homed in on zip codes, but that was a big thing with ag is it’s crop and zip code specific, and even I heard this at the sustainability conferences, even East Kansas versus West Kansas.

Tunstall: Wow.

Glass: Yeah, it’s like really specific. So that was much more hyper-regional. So you can think about regional, hyper-local SEO, search engine optimization. Now some of that’s changing with the cookies and things like that. But then if you’ve got a closed media entity or platform like Facebook or Meister Media, you have your digital platforms. And so one of the things I’m using from a digital perspective is basically the retargeting through the Meister properties. And so, you know, I’ll advertise in the row crop or you know, CropLife or the, you know, the vegetables or whatever and then have that digital follow on. We do a lot of print ad growers still like their print. They do.

I like experimenting. I think I want to experiment with podcasting. That’s been a big thing. I haven’t done that much of it. But growers, especially in row crops, spend a ton of time in their car and they’re real digitally connected. They’ve got a lot of different things connected to the Internet. And so podcasts are a really great thing because it’s so hyperlocal. I did field signs. I mean literally, the field signs, as you drive past the same corner and you want that brand reinforcement. So I got really creative. Sure, this is like, know I haven’t done bus stops yet, but I might have to, you know, and really thinking about like, how do we do this differently. And I’m glad to see more digital adoption. So we’re we’re doing a fair mix of email marketing, digital targeting as well as the print and the Facebook.

Tunstall: Yeah, I love that. And I think what you just said is so important for people who aren’t in marketing to understand is how specific you have to get with identifying who your audience is and what your audience likes to how they like to consume their information. Right? Because it’s different and it’s different based on message, too. So if you’re just going for awareness, that may be a visual side. If you’re going to build a relationship, it might be a story, might be a podcast.

Glass: Yes. Now we’ve done videos, videos early on. Podcasts are good. We do a pretty regular blog, We do sponsored content, so they push it out or bring them to the website early on, because I knew that this was very specific. We started an Ag Facts pages, so it’s watermelon and corn and we got a specific page which we are going to use as the landing pages for our Facebook pages.

But that’s funny. We’ve been doing SEO, right, search engine optimization and keywords, and we were doing the cole crops and my business partner comes running in and I didn’t even quite understand what he was showing me but our cole crops page was on the top of the search engine. The organic results.

Tunstall: Beautiful.

Glass: We were beating everybody else. If you want to read about cole crops, we were there, number one.

Tunstall: That’s the gold standard: Get in the top of the search.

Glass: And you know, so it’s like, be creative about what you’re doing. Make sure that your message is clear and concise and has ROI. Though you know, I do some experimentation. I mean, there’s you know, you still need to do your A/B testing. I mean, we just did an email campaign. I got phenomenal open rates. But, you know, if 20% of people open them, 80% didn’t. Okay. We got to try another subject line, right? And just using the same one. All right.

Tunstall: Right, exactly. And that speaks very much to what you mentioned earlier about iteration and adaptation. Once you realize something’s not working, you move to some new way of doing it, right.

Glass: We test our Facebook ads, you know, every every 90 days or so.

Tunstall: Yeah, that’s great. So for non marketers, let’s dig a little bit deeper into what’s retargeting and why is it beneficial?

Glass: So retargeting is used to be a lot more stocky and a lot of those cookies and that those things have, you know, sort of been mitigated. Google doesn’t allow tracking you across different sites like if you’d been shoe shopping on Amazon and then you kept seeing the same shoes when you went to the Weather Channel.

I mean that that stuff for is kind of transitioning down but if it’s literally something that if you’re interested in soil moisture monitoring for cotton crop or for cole crop, then that’s legitimate interest. And so if you’re then on and I came in through the produce page, then other things that are related to that topic – maybe there’s a seed page about the, you know, whatever you’re planting, your broccoli, or whatever the timing is on that – so then my ad will, then retargeting will go into that page as well. I hope I just explained that very well.

Tunstall: You know what, it’s hilarious as you’re explaining that, the only thing I think of is how many videos of golden retrievers I see on Instagram now, because we adopted a golden retriever. But that’s exactly right. When you show interest in something online. The Internet pays attention, then starts to go back to you and say, Hey, remember you’re interested in this and you keep getting fed that information. So retargeting is very similar to that. And, you know, I think it’s a great way to remind people.

Let’s talk a little bit about, you know, the buyer’s journey, right? It’s not always just I’m going to get online, I know exactly what I want and I’m going to click on it. Don’t we wish that were the case?

Glass: You have to evolve, but also pay attention to where where your customer is.

Tunstall: That’s so important and there was a conversation earlier today about, I heard someone mention, are you on TikTok for your market? TikTok. Everybody talks about it. Sometimes it works for people. So one thing that I thought was interesting and to think about this in a different way and all the different facets of marketing, social media marketing can be anything from posting something on YouTube to yes, LinkedIn blog to Facebook ad, yeah, to a TikTok video. However, does it make sense for your audience?

Because yeah, part of what we think through and when you talk to most people, Instagram and TikTok are kind of their way of unplugging. They’re their decompression sites. They go on there to look at golden retrievers. It’s family videos, things like that – it’s what they do when they’re done with work.

Glass: Yeah, exactly.

Tunstall: So B2B, it’s a big challenge. Not impossible, but it’s a big challenge to break through that. And you may be flirting with annoying people more so than engaging people. So let’s talk a little bit about, you know, selecting the channels are important.

Glass: Yeah, and I was I was really bummed that X – the platform formerly known as Twitter – has devolved so much. Ag Twitter was awesome. And as I got involved in that early on and it was, I was listening and learning and I, you know, Facebook connections and ask somebody and the gal said, well, the reason this is so important is we’re miles from our neighbors and our community and this is how we’re communicating.

So social became a really, you know, social as in Twitter at the time, became an important connection point and sharing point, you know, what was going on in the community and literally they had hashtag #AgTwitter and it was really, really powerful. Now that whole platform is devolved and so largely shutting that down. But it makes me sad, so then we said, well, is Facebook viable as well?

And I’m going to continue the program, but we have to be very careful with it because growers – as we were talking about B2C versus B2B – a grower is a consumer who also happens to have a business. So we had to be really careful to parse out gardeners, right? Somebody who’s got a commercial vineyard or, you know, a commercial blueberry growing operation and then it still, you know, so we were like very careful about our messaging and the pictures that we use and everything in our ads, and we still get, “Why you on your bugging me?”

Tunstall: Yeah.

Glass: Well, then just ignore it if it’s not you, right?

Tunstall: Just keep scrolling.

Glass: I know but so Facebook was an unexpected success. LinkedIn is not, because, I mean unless you’re a big grower I mean, like McCann’s or Driscoll’s or whatever, you know, that’s, you know, a much bigger entity. You’re going to find people on LinkedIn, but you can find partners on LinkedIn. So if you’re a startup or you’re looking for collaborators or people in other countries to collaborate with, too, internationally, I would go to LinkedIn, but I’m probably not ever going to run ads on LinkedIn.

We do have a YouTube channel. We do two things with that. We very much use it as an educational platform. So it’s part of our customer support and our dealer onboarding. So all of our educational content is recorded in YouTube, and so that’s part of that educational training platform and customer support.

Tunstall: YouTube is a huge search engine.

Glass: Yeah.

Tunstall: And we talk so much about people who are self-learners and guess where they go.

Glass: Yes.

Tunstall: They go to YouTube.

Glass: So, I need to figure out how to fix this faucet or whatever…

Tunstall: Exactly. No, I won’t call a qualified professional. I’m going to do it myself. But they go to YouTube. So, you know, it’s a very powerful tool and it gets to that point of storytelling. It’s that longer form storytelling, even short videos can be considered longer form storytelling because it gives you the visual, gives you the audio, gives you explanation and context.

And I think that, you know, marketing has evolved more into that storytelling realm through a variety of different touchpoints. You’ve got the quick hit visuals, you’ve got the storytelling, you’ve got collaboration and all of that. So I think that’s very powerful.

Glass: Content, content, content.

Tunstall: You know, we hear it all the time, you guys, content. So, you know, I think one thing that we want to touch on a little bit: With the Global Ag Tech Initiative mission to increase adoption of ag technology, how can marketing play a role in that?

Glass: Marketing definitely needs to play a role in that because we as communicators, we as the communications community, have to do that better. We need to own our content. We need to make sure we’re reaching all those channels. We need to make sure we’re making our messaging hyper-regional, hyper crop-focused. AquaSpy is across row crops as well as specialty crops. And I remember talking to Joe because the conversations with the row crop community are very different than they are with the specialty crop community and there’s not a ton of us as ag tech companies that go across both. But there’s, there’s sufficient, and you really have to be very cognizant in your messaging that you’re differentiating that. And so, you know, marketers can help educate, we can coach, we can be mentors, we can look to our peers because for each other, that’s great.

Tunstall: And I think we’ve touched on a lot of really great tips and tricks. Anything else you want to add in terms of somebody struggling with their marketing messaging? And I love how you keep talking about honing your message because I think that is the cornerstone of marketing. It’s making sure your message is right. But any other tips and tricks you can give to those who are dipping their toe in marketing and are not sure where to start?

Glass: There’s a lot of great resources. I mentioned HubSpot, and HubSpot has so much free content around best practices in marketing. In fact, we were talking about AI today. HubSpot will even help you. They have AI that will help you write a sales email. Now you have all these resources. You have, you know, places that have tons of free advisors, webinars. There’s different events that you can go to. And I think the thing to remember is yes, the adoption cycle is different. With the growers, it’s much longer, but they’re buyers like everybody else and this is still an early adopter sale. So, read Crossing the Chasm. Everybody should read Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey Moore, because it talks about knocking down the bowling pins.

And so, you know, don’t start with every crop, maybe start with blueberries or maybe start with potatoes and really get what that grower community is doing. Get that region, get your partners and then branch out from there. CEOs need to be sales and marketers. I mean, you can’t just push this off to a magical person that you call a marketer. You have to learn and listen and bring that back in.

Tunstall: So yeah, that’s a great point. At least understand what it takes and surface level and then, you know, when you don’t have a marketer on staff, reach out, collaborate, find an agency.

Glass: Yeah.

Tunstall: You know, so I think that’s wonderful. Kathleen, thank you so much for joining me today on our Ground Breaking Podcast.